Who Will Get The Biopic Treatment Next?
Movie award season is upon us once again, which means that it's peak biopic season. You know what I mean — those big, sweeping epics about the life of a Very Important Person portrayed by a Very Serious Actor.
These blockbuster, wide-release biopics have been reliable vehicles for many actors — especially actors of color — to establish their on-screen bona fides. Lou Diamond Phillips had only appeared in low-budget films until his turn as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba. Jennifer Lopez was a little-known dancer until Selena. Jamie Foxx was a successful standup comedian with a sitcom on UPN, and then he became Ray Charles. Will Smith was already a big action star, but his turn as Muhammad Ali was meant to show his range and gravitas. Angela Bassett was ubiquitous if below-the-radar, and then came her star turn as Tina Turner.
The subjects may be worthwhile on their own merits, but it's not hard to see why Idris Elba would want to be Nelson Mandela or Andre 3000 would want to be Jimi Hendrix. All the meaty bits go to the titular character — a biopic tends to be, at its root, a sterling impersonation of an iconic figure led by a cast of characters whose purpose is to tease out the internal tensions in the central characters' lives. Not coincidentally, Foxx, Bassett, and Smith all earned Oscar nominations for their performances. (On the marketing side, there's the bonus of all that name recognition — "That new Martin Luther King movie is out on Christmas!" — which studio folks love.)
Chadwick Boseman is probably our current mascot of the biopic-to-legitimacy movement, although it's hard to figure out just how that's going for him . Last year, he was stealing bases and breaking the color barrier in 42, the thoroughly competent movie about Jackie Robinson. Just this summer, he was howling and dancing as (an improbably tall) James Brown in Get On Up. Friend of the blog Aisha Harris wrote at Slate that Boseman "elevate[d] an average — if entertaining — jaunt through a man's extraordinary career to that of a truly funky exercise in complex, fascinating performance," which when you think about it, is the kind of thing that people say about all biopic lead performances. The format has its conventions, and those engender somewhat conventional critical responses. (More on this in a later post.)
This train ain't likely to slow down anytime soon. Next year, Don Cheadle will portray Miles Davis. Ice Cube's son will play Ice Cube in a movie about the rise and fall of N.W.A. Jamie Foxx will swim back into the biopic waters as Mike Tyson. Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave, will helm a forthcoming biopic about the singer and activist Paul Robeson. Oh, and then there's the Nina Simone movie and the Marvin Gaye movie and the Roberto Duran movie and on and on...
This is an endlessly renewable format as Very Important People are minted all the time. How long before we see the inevitable Barack Obama movie? Or Michael B. Jordan playing a young Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X in Denzel: The Movie? And why hasn't someone already made one about Grace Lee Boggs?
So we're throwing this out there to you, folks. Which icons of color do you think we are likely to see win (lose?) the biopic Olympics in the upcoming years? Who do you want to see in a biopic in the coming years? (Please note that those are different questions.) Cast your movie and give us a synopsis in the comments, or at the hashtag #BiopicPredix.
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